Serving Users With Virtual Labs in a Time of Distance Learning
Virtual labs can engage learners, convey important subject matter, and stimulate career interest in a variety of careers. This flexibility is especially important when physical lab space isn’t an option, or when learning from home is necessary.
Well-designed online interactive labs have the potential to reach a large population of learners in formal or informal learning situations, including those who may not have access to conventional on-campus educational activities.
The Innovative Media Research and Extension team at New Mexico State University has a history of using virtual labs to help learners understand concepts in new ways, to reach learners who may not have access to lab space or equipment, and to reach place-bound learners. During the pandemic, we saw an expansion of interest in virtual laboratory modules online due to the increase in at-home learning.
Build familiarity. Complex techniques become familiar with practice.
Teach conceptual knowledge. Labs give a context for learners to apply what they know.
Provide a safe space for learning. Users can practice and fail without real-life consequences.
Foster learner interest. By introducing topics that might otherwise get overlooked, virtual labs provide an entry into new topics.
Can be played anywhere. Convenient during distance learning, or when schools do not have access to wet lab facilities.
Are not limited to science. Can inspire hands-on learning of any kind, from cooking to math to other processes.
Using virtual labs, learners can focus microscopes, pipette liquids, prepare insects for a collection, sample bacteria and grow them in an incubator, look for mycotoxins under UV light, test the pH of samples, and much more.
Although virtual labs are sometimes used as a pre-lab or a supplementary exercise in combination with hands-on lab work, they can also provide confidence and motivation to students without access to these opportunities. For example, in a study of students who lacked wet lab facilities in schools, those exposed to food science virtual labs expressed greater interest in related careers (Hegerfeld-Baker, 2013; 2016; Peterson, 2014).
Virtual Labs from the Learning Games Lab
Over the years, the Learning Games Lab has created more than 25 virtual labs in collaboration with scientists and educators. Here are some examples.
The Virtual Insect Collection Lab, created in collaboration with the NMSU Arthropod Museum, gives users the full experience of pinning/pointing insects with the process used in an entomology lab.
The CONSERVE Water Sampling & Water Testing labs, created in collaboration with the University of Maryland School of Public Health, teach appropriate techniques for collecting surface water in various locations, testing it for E. coli, and interpreting results.
Eight food science Virtual Labs, created in collaboration with South Dakota State University and North Dakota State University, explore key food safety concepts such as pH, water activity, bacterial growth, mycotoxins, and Gram staining.
Nitrogen & Agriculture and Nutritious Nitrogen help learners explore nitrogen requirements for plant, animal and soil health. Students can practice creating feed rations for animals and fertilizer regimes for crops.
An interactive iPad app, Kid Eats, created in collaboration with the University of Connecticut, provides an interactive cooking experience for young children, to support families cooking together. This app has also been used in after-school 4-H programs.
Modeled after soil testing that often needs to be done in soil and environmental studies laboratories, this lab lets users manipulate realistic laboratory equipment, such as the pipette, cuvette, and shaking table. Originally made in Adobe Flash, this lab is currently unavailable.
Impacts & Audience
Who is using these virtual labs?
As with other digital multimedia tools, virtual labs are designed with specific audiences in mind. Sometimes this means students in traditional classrooms, sometimes Extension audiences or workers learning new skills.
Many of these tools see significant online and mobile usage. In 2020, the team’s virtual labs were used 1.2 million times on the web and had more than 244,000 downloads on the Apple App store. Patterns of use suggests that learners increasingly relied on these materials beginning in March 2020 with the shift to distance learning due to COVID-19. The timing of usage tells us that they were mostly used Monday through Friday (Figure 1), with peaks in October and March. Analytics from Apple tell us that the vast majority of downloads of our eight food science virtual labs (iPad apps) are being made by educational institutions.
Challenges of Virtual Labs
As with any digital product, virtual labs need to be updated as technology advances. A big challenge for developers in recent years has been the transition from Adobe Flash into modern web formats such as HTML5, WebGL or Unity. Mobile operating systems also change rapidly and require updated versions of apps for compatibility. Maintenance costs associated with updating virtual labs are a cost of serving audiences, even after the original grant funding for a product may be long used up.
Another challenge of virtual labs is the balance between providing information and letting users interact with the scenes and equipment. Including an introductory video or tutorial can help to set the stage, so the lab can focus on engaging users through images and actions. “More information” buttons give users the option of learning more about certain topics without cluttering the screen with too much text.
It’s also important to consider accessibility at every stage of the design process. In every new virtual lab our studio creates, we strive to include affordances suitable to the target audience, such as narration and/or voiceover compatibility, keyboard navigation, alt-text for images, and clickable (rather than draggable) interactions. All of our products are analyzed for color contrast and ease of use for a range of vision needs. For more information about our accessibility process, see How To Design Learning Tools That Are More Accessible.
The Innovative Media Research and Extension team presented on this topic at the 2021 ACE Conference (Association for Communication Excellence – June 23, 2021).
Hegerfeld-Baker, Joan, "Influence of STEM Education and Technology in Selecting Food and Agriculture Careers" (2013). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1419.
Hegerfeld-Baker, J., Droke, L., Pallapu, P., & Anand, S. (2016). Factors Influencing Choice of Food Safety Related Career Path: An Online Focus Group Study. NACTA Journal, 60(1), 1-8. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/nactajournal.60.1.1
Peterson, Lisa A., "The Effectiveness of Virtual Simulations Impacting Conceptual Knowledge and Proficiency of Laboratory Techniques in an Undergraduate Microbiology Laboratory Course" (2014). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1573.
Written By: Amy Smith Muise, Program Manager, email@example.com in collaboration with Matheus Cezarotto, Pamela Martinez, and Barbara Chamberlin